The NVA soldiers moved back and forth in the tufted growth mud distance, like sidewinding snakes across a desert of nearly flat sand.
The numbers, I instantly knew, although it was impossible to see individuals at distance even through the mildly magnified gun sight, were too large to be handled or overcome by firing the six gun barrels of the Ontos. I turned my head and started to move from my seat atop the ammo boxes Rio had substituted in place of the metal swivel chair. I stopped midway because Fusner was there already, holding out the radio handset.
“Ripcord, gun control officer, sir,” he said, his tone indicating that he and Zippo had probably been able to come to the same conclusion I had without the aid of any visually enhancing equipment.
“Bob, give me a battery of three, drop one hundred from the first grid of adjustment,” I ordered, and then went on, “they’re coming from the edge of the jungle across the mud flats at us, fully exposed.”
“Roger that contact,” Bob replied, his voice flat and analytical. “The depression might be more than we can compute from here though so keep your heads down.”
I handed Fusner the handset and went back to staring intently through the gun sight, wondering why they didn’t make gun sights that had binocular vision instead of a single lens eyepiece, and marginally worried about what Bob’s ‘might be more than we can compute’ might portend.
The rain was misting gray, with slightly darker bands of it crossing the flats from east to west, moving like the ripple of waves along a stage curtain being opened or closed. I could see through the rain but the sight could not overcome the obscuring effect of the water hitting the mud, causing a mild form of ground steam that was just great enough to make things, like creeping soldiers, nearly invisible within it.
The artillery came in like an express train high above, just as before, except all the heavy rounds didn’t land where they were supposed to.
At the first explosions, I grabbed the radio handset back from Fusner so roughly he recoiled back a bit.
“Check fire, check fire,” I screamed. The reverberating explosions were still coming through the air, some from the jungle to our front but some from behind us, as well.
Ripcord had tried to adjust for the cliff overhang but missed the exact aim point because of the height of the canyon wall and unpredictable travel of those rounds when they were traveling at the very end of their maximum range.
Some of the rounds hit the top of the cliff and then, as I had worried over, bounced instead of going off harmlessly above us. I listened for Marines screaming because it was unlikely in our position at the bottom of the canyon wall that there was little doubt we’d taken casualties. Marine casualties from my artillery call. Again. I grimaced and cringed, pushing the radio handset back to Fusner.
“Call Cowboy and get some air in here,” I yelled over my shoulder without turning my head.
I could not concentrate on the effect of the short rounds. We had bigger problems. I studied what I could see across the mudflat in front of me, and tried to decide where to best expend my six recoilless shots. With what I guessed to be nearly a regiment on the move, I could not imagine, as they got closer, that any of my Marines would be able to reload the 106s, and stay alive, in the kind of small arms fire concentration that would be brought to bear. I had to fire when the enemy was just beyond two hundred meters, where the explosives in the beehive rounds were set to go off. If I fired too soon then the flechettes, traveling initially at twenty-two thousand feet per second from the explosion would very quickly be slowed in the thick rain-filled air and become ineffective. If I fired too late the flechettes would fan out beyond the force I was shooting at.
I wiped my eyes, trying to see through the sight more clearly. I’d left my helmet on a nearby ammo box outside and next to the right track of the Ontos, and, in spite of what I was trying to see out in front of me, I was worried that I would lose the damaged thing. I tried to focus through the fear. My helmet didn’t matter.
I stared at the moving mass in front of me, waiting for the right moment. I had to get it right. The range to the nearest four lines of stopping and starting, turning and bobbing soldiers was about four hundred meters, according to the little white marks etched into the vertical crosshair line brightly appearing on my reticle.
Three-fifty, I calculated, trying to home in on any single soldier not going down into the mud and bouncing back up. The NVA was not moving using the Marine Corps tried and true ‘fire and maneuver’ approach to crossing an open field of fire. The ‘fire’ part of that maneuver was to suppress enemy fire by keeping the enemy’s head down. In reality, the maneuver was only marginally successful in an application, but it was better than what I was seeing the NVA attempt to execute in front of me. Why were they seemingly disappearing and then reappearing? At three hundred meters, I heard several of the company M-60s open up. The sporadic nature of their fire spaced out because the gunners could see what I saw, an enormity in number that if constantly fired upon would overheat their barrels and use up their ammunition.
“I thought World War One proved that mass attacks against machine guns were impossible,” I murmured to myself, as the leading elements of several of the snaking attackers got closer.
“Fire the One-Oh-Six,” I yelled, to warn everyone who might not have gotten the message that killing back pressure was about to be thrust violently outward behind one of the guns. I punched the ping pong ball sized firing trigger for the left outboard weapon. The switches for the guns were six flat round circles of metal set in a row to match the placement of the 106 barrels.
The flechette round burst from the gun with a deafening roar, followed by an enormous whooshing sound. I’d never heard any weapon in training or in combat that sounded like a 106 being fired.
The sound, and then instant jolt of the Ontos reacting to the launching of the heavy round, caused me to blink and miss seeing the explosion itself. All I saw was a wispy cloud of gray smoke fast-disappearing in the still-falling and blowing waves of mist in the air. The enemy disappeared. Nothing was moving in front of me for seconds, then one squad or group of enemy soldiers bobbed up. I fired the second 106. This time I kept my eye open, but again there wasn’t anything to see. One moment the enemy was running back and forth crouched as low as their bodies could get, and the next there was nothing except the dissipating smoke to see. No bodies lay in the aftermath of the round’s impact. After I fired the third round I turned to instruct Fusner about reloading before I’d used up the ammo in all the barrels, but Fusner wasn’t there. Zippo and Nguyen were there.
Zippo grabbed a tube and slid the black container out. The flechette rounds had been laid out earlier in one large triangular pile.
Nguyen took the second tube. There was no plan that I could tell. Both men disappeared toward the left side of the Ontos. All I could do was stare through the reticle and wait. Minutes later Zippo patted me on the back and gave me a thumbs up.
“Locked and loaded,” he said, with a grim smile.
I sighted and fired three rounds, one after another from the right side, and then waited for the reload, keeping the three barrels on the opposing side always loaded in reserve. I didn’t keep track of how many flechette rounds I fired until Zippo hit me on the shoulder and said we only had high explosives left.
The first HE round I put near a pack of running soldiers went off, throwing up a huge column of mud. The enemy reacted similarly to the impacting of the flechette rounds, but there was a different effect that caught my attention. Not only were there no bodies littering the mud but the NVA on the field had disappeared almost the instant the round went off. All of them. And then I got it.
“Get the Gunny,” I ordered Fusner.
“Air is on the way,” Fusner reported quickly, before running off to find the Gunny.
The company had come fully online, I knew, from the near-constant din of M-60 fire, and the crisscrossing tracer rounds traveling in floating high-speed lines across the surface of the mud. But there was no enemy to be seen.
“Junior,” what’s going on?” the Gunny said, slipping back into the double door opening at the back of the Ontos. “Is air support coming?”
“They’re disappearing before my eyes,” I said, still peering into the scope. “They get up and run, I fire, and then they’re gone, but they aren’t leaving the field littered with bodies. What the hell? How’s that possible?”
“Shit,” the Gunny intoned. “I had an idea when we were setting up the machine guns. They aren’t out there trying a banzai charge at all, and they’re still out there. Spider holes. They’ve got holes dug all over across that mud flat. They raised front lip of the holes just enough so we can’t see the edge of the holes from here. They haven’t been attacking. They’ve been creeping forward, and now they’re sitting out there waiting. They had to have figured we might come back to the same position we occupied before.”
“Waiting for what?” I asked, my voice slightly quivering with the fear coiling back up in the pit of my stomach. One of the tenets drilled into all company grade officers at the Basic School was to never re-occupy the same position in a guerrilla conflict.
“To come out tonight,” the Gunny replied, lighting another cigarette. “That’s why they didn’t show their normal fear of the Ontos.”
I noted his hand shaking slightly. It was the first time I’d seen the Gunny show any weakness in any situation since I’d known him. My own fear escalated up several levels.
“They wanted to get close and inside the set-back range of the 106,” the Gunny continued, no emotion in his deep quiet voice.
“They want to go at it hand to hand in the dark.”
“Cowboy couldn’t make it so he sent Spooky,” Fusner said from just behind the Ontos, the AN-323 headset sticking out from under his helmet.
“What’s Spooky?” I asked, faintly mystified but glad any air power at all was on the way. “When are they on the station?” I continued, my nervousness too great to allow me to sit silently and wait for Fusner’s response.
“Spooky’s the 20mm variant of Puff,” the Gunny explained, “but instead of three 7.72 guns like Puff, Spooky has two rotary 20mm weapons. They’re new so I have never seen it in action.”
“It’s here,” I said, feeling a sense of relief that I knew might not be justified, but it flowed through me like a swig of hot chocolate on an icy cold day. The unmistakable deep thrum of a four-engine C-130 at low altitude seemed to make the very canyon walls vibrate.
“Give me the headset,” I ordered, holding my right hand out to Fusner. There was no point in staring out over the mud flats through the sight. The NVA had played me, and without the daylight and beehive rounds, the company would be sitting ducks in the night for a mass attack from their nearby position. The Starlight Scope would not be able to do at that point except let us know we were being overrun.
I reached the C-130 pilot without trouble. The commander of the aircraft came on personally. I filled him in on our position and asked if he’d first fly over to make sure he understood our problem. He said the name of his plane was Rhythm Rain. I remembered the first lyrics of the famous song by the same name; “listen to the sound of the falling rain.” Under different circumstances, I would have smiled at the commander’s humorous use of the song, so similar to the names I used for my own plans.
“Got your six, Junior, coming in on a port sliding pylon turn at about one thousand over your six, over.”
On cue, the big plane appeared, canted over and then performed a slow turn, it’s wings impossibly perpendicular to the bottom of the valley as it came around. I stared at the spectacle, my fear lessening, as the plane completed its full 360-degree rotation.
“I presume that Ontos sitting there has to belong to you fellas, over.”
“That’s affirmative,” I replied, relief that our own position was accurately and uniquely marked.
“We’re goin’ live my partners and friends, so meld your asses down into the loving jungle mud you got goin’ for you there.”
The 130 came around, dropped its left wing tip and opened up. It wasn’t like Puff, as stunning as that plane’s attacks had been to witness. It was different. There was no ‘braying’ or lashing tongue of yellowish red fire hosing the area, but there was plenty of sound. The sound was like a giant out of control chainsaw roaring.. A chainsaw quite possibly a thousand times the size of the largest one ever made. Puff had not hurt our ears, but I was joined by every Marine around me in covering my ears as best I could. The mud in front of the Ontos wasn’t mud anymore. It more resembled a bouncing jouncing giant field of dancing and spraying chocolate shakes. The mud was still mud though because it flew so far and wide through the air that it came blowing back over our position. Mud bits, spray, and other awful stuff rained down. I pulled myself fully into the cover of the Ontos and the Gunny did the same.
The big plane orbited for five more times, each three minute run punctuated with the roading fire. My shoulders began to slump down in relief. There was little or nothing that could survive out on the mud flats, or even lightly dug in, not from 20mm rounds. The three and a half ounces of each small exploding round delivered about ten times the power and penetration of an M-60 machine gun round, and the machine guns ammo had no explosive capability.
“We’re going to return to the barn for more ammo,” Rhythm’s commander said, "but we’ll see if we can make a vet call out here in the early hours if you feel you might need some extra care.”
The big plane waggled its wings, turned, and then flew up the valley. I sat numb, letting my hands fall from my ears. My left ear ringing but my right somewhat protected from the firing by the microphone. I hadn’t thought to respond to the Spooky flight commander. I hadn’t even asked his name.
The all-covering and uncaring mist of rain continued marching across the mud flat. The river came back with its rushing current sounds. The sediment, mud, and dirt that had been thrown into the air less than a couple of minutes earlier were all gone.
The artillery had saved us earlier but then hurt us too. Air had come in and done the job. I’d been sucked into firing all the Ontos flechette rounds, but we could survive without them as long as we could hold our current position with small arms and air returning in the morning.
Night was coming and it couldn’t come fast enough for me, the day having been an initial series of successful moves but then topped off with the short artillery rounds and the ability of the enemy to work and shoot from holes dug into the mud that were, because of the short scrub around them, unnoticeable unless we were on top of them.
The threat was still there because no one in the company was going out to check what was left of the holes until the next dawn. The Starlight Scope could be used to pick off individuals unwise enough to move out across the mud flats in the night. I had eleven rounds left for the Ontos but they were all high explosive. The flechettes had been put to no real good use, but the air support had been massively effective. The fact that we had no more of the infantry-stopping beehive rounds could leave us in a vulnerable position if the next day was to be a repeat of the one we’d just been through, although with the spider holes churned up like a spring day farmer’s field, it wasn’t likely.
I climbed out of the Ontos, found my pack and helmet, and then made my way over the berm to where the cliff overhand allowed a cave-like interior to be inhabited with relative safety.
I tossed my pack as far back as I could and then squatted down to wait for the Gunny, who I knew would be coming with a butcher’s bill of casualties over the Ripcord short rounds. It only took a few minutes for him to arrive, accompanied by Jurgens, Sugar Daddy, and their three radio operators.
“We can’t bring choppers in here at all, even for a medivac, not as long as they control the jungle mass over there,” the Gunny said, sitting close in with me, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. “We’ve got nine wounded but none critical.”
The rest of the company NCOs either avoided me entirely or were never called forward to me for any interrogation or commands. The Gunny handled the company, as he had all along. I occasionally spoke to battalion but never to the six actual. My main contacts with the outside world in the rear areas was either through using the artillery net Prick 25 to talk to the batteries or the AN-323 to talk to the Skyraiders or other supporting aircraft.
“We can bring them in at the old airfield and hump the wounded there and the supplies back,” I replied, having given the situation some thought.
We had the nine wounded, none critically and none dead. My relief was palpable.
If the wounded were ambulatory enough to make the trek it was an accomplishable mission. Worse than the medical problem, however, was the fact that we lacked water, in spite of the incessant rain. Our C-ration supply was adequate, at best, and we needed more ammunition. Most importantly, we had to have beehive rounds for the Ontos, and they were heavy and unwieldy.
“Nobody’s going to want to cross that river under fire and hump back all that shit,” Jurgens piped in. “We’ve taken enough casualties since setting in here, but then you know that don’t you, Junior.”
I looked to Jurgen’s right side where Nguyen crouched, just inside the bracken that grew back from the edge of the berm. I motioned him away from the sergeant with a nod so small I didn’t think anybody else could notice. Nguyen moved, but not far.
My hand went to my forty-five, casually. I knew where Jurgens was going with his comment and I waited, wondering for the hundredth time whether I should just shoot the brutal, nasty man right where he sat or wait to see how the situation developed.
“You called the arty, not me,” Jurgens said, “and that cost us plenty. We didn’t lose a single Marine to the attack. That’s the second time in days where you cost us more Marines than the enemy.”
I waited, like I’d waited for the NVA to come at us, my attitude not much different toward Jurgens than it was those enemy soldiers. If Jurgens was going to continue then I knew I was going to shoot him. It had nothing to do with anger. For three weeks, I’d let the sergeant say things that made it more likely nobody in the company could respect me, not for the things I’d done, but because of the few things I had not done. I had not killed Sugar Daddy when he tried to kill me, several times. I’d not killed Jurgens when the things he said in front of other Marines had nearly the same ultimate effect.
I thought about writing home. I’d missed a day, somehow, what with the critical nature of the move and the difficulty of crossing the river and getting ready for the attack. We were still in the A Shau Valley. I sat, staring blankly at Jurgens, and thought about how long I’d been there. It seemed like years. Maybe my wife was tired of reading about the botany and biology of the verdant valley of great deadly beauty. I couldn’t write her about killing Jurgens, or the difficulties that were going to arise when his roughly assembled platoon of white crackers from the south found out.
No one said anything, following Jurgens comment. The Gunny lit a small coffee fire. He smoked one of his cigarettes but didn’t remove it from his mouth to flick away the ash. I noticed the bit of composition B burning blue and white instead of yellow and red which normally it had. The Gunny puffed on the cigarette, his eyes following my own.
“New stuff,” he said, reaching behind him to grab a white block about the size of two cigarette cartons taped together. “C-4 they call it. Burns hotter and more bang for the buck, or so the paper in the box said. 26,000 feet per second instead of twenty-two.”
I realized the safety of my .45 automatic was on. I would need to snap it off, but such a move would alert Jurgens. I knew it could be snapped off quickly and easily when I brought the weapon up, but I wanted to be certain nothing went wrong. Jurgens radio operator was nearby, as was Sugar Daddy’s. Everything and everyone there had to be taken into account.
“Apologize,” the Gunny said, finally taking his cigarette from his lips, his voice so soft it was difficult to hear him.
I looked into the Gunny’s eyes but could not tell what he was thinking, His expression was the same as it almost always was. I wanted to ask him who he was talking to but I remained silent.
“He used the Ontos effectively, led us here where we sit in safety, and he called in artillery and air to make all that happen. Some artillery went astray. That shit happens. So, apologize to the lieutenant.”
I knew instantly that the Gunny had picked up on my nod toward Nguyen, his move to the side and my placing my hand on the butt of Tex’s Colt. I knew his words weren’t about Jurgens respecting me. His request to Jurgens was a request to let the man live. He’d called me lieutenant for only the third time since I’d been in country. He didn’t take that lightly, and neither did I. He was forcing Jurgen’s hand while at the same time holding mine in abeyance.
The Gunny held out his cup of coffee toward me across the little blue and white fire, but I wasn't looking at him. I was examining Jurgens closely like a snake might examine a nearby mouse.
What was the sergeant going to do, I wondered?